Go see Mary Queen of Scots. See it for the acting, see it for the history, see it for the Gaidhlig and, most importantly, see it for the unique story it tells. Even if you know what happens, the way they tell it is profound. Very few stories have the message this one does, and it’s one well worth hearing.
What story do I mean? I don’t mean what happened to Mary Queen of Scots, the life she lived and the way it all played out; the events of history. I mean the story the writers of the film made out of those events. Their story isn’t about a hero who overcomes their challenges and gets rewarded, it’s a story of someone who’s utterly destroyed despite doing everything right. And yet it’s not a tragedy either. So, if it’s not a normal success story and it’s not a tragedy, what is it?
It’s one of the most important victory stories we need to hear. It’s a story that measures success not by the consequences of your actions but that you took them in the first place. Mary arrives in a thoroughly patriarchal world, basically all the men are conspiring to take her power away from her and she needs to make an heir. Her rival in England, Elizabeth, cops out by not marrying anyone, well aware that she risks losing power to the man she marries. But Mary, Mary takes that risk and marries a man who indeed does want to dominate her. She marries him despite the risk, however, and she puts up with him despite him actually betraying her, because if she doesn’t walk that line, she won’t have a child.
And it’s not just about having an heir to Scotland, it’s also about her having a child for herself. Of course, it is partly her putting the interests of Scotland first, securing the line of succession and all that—she is partly taking the risk for the good of her country; sacrificing herself for the greater good. But she’s also doing it because she wants a child, wants to be a mother, and that personal goal is just as important to her.
Her victory is that she takes that risk—she takes that risk and has those goals in the first place. She alone has the balance of compassion and bravery, to have goals worth fighting for and to be strong enough to actually fight for them. Most characters in the film are either compassionate or brave; her handmaidens are compassionate but not brave, her Scottish nobles are brave but not compassionate. Actually, almost all the men in the film are brave but not compassionate, let’s be honest. Only Mary lives her life both bravely and compassionately; only she lives a balanced life, a fulfilled life, which is why this is her story.
Or to put it another way, which is why her story is worth telling (if indeed it is her story). You can argue over the historicity if you like but that doesn’t take away from the story the writers told through their interpretation of history. Maybe everything John Knox said about her was true, I doubt it though, but even if it was, it wouldn’t stop this retelling having the power it does.
I think Mary sums it up best herself in the denouement scene with Elizabeth. At the climax of the scene, she rebuts a haughty Elizabeth by calling her her “inferior.” See, to the eyes of the world, she lost; she failed and now was begging for help from wiser people who didn’t make her mistakes. But she gets it. She gets that though she lost, she’s braver and more compassionate than anyone else around her—only she lived an authentic life that had both virtues, and so Elizabeth, who traded liberty for safety, as the saying goes, deserves neither and will lose both. Mary comes face to face with someone who had the same choices to make, and made all the wrong ones. Though Elizabeth might have power over Mary now, ultimately, she still failed where Mary succeeded.
And, I’ll say this again, I’m not just talking about Mary getting an heir. Yes, the film ends by referring to James VI and I inheriting both thrones. But you’d be a fool to think the story is about her male son succeeding where she failed. The bigger victory isn’t that Scotland inherited England, it’s that Mary lived her life authentically, even to her death. James’ succession isn’t the victory, it’s the reward for Mary living an authentic life, the reward for her victory. I put it to you though, her story would still be a victory even if her son hadn’t inherited both thrones. The point is that we should try to live our lives in a similarly authentic way; we may be destroyed, we may fail, but success is the act of trying itself, and though you may fail if you try, you’ll never succeed if you don’t try in the first place.
Now, I said earlier that almost all the men in the film were brave but not compassionate. There was one who was both. A highlander who could only speak Gaidhlig. If you’re not convinced enough to go watch the film for everything I’ve told you, then go see it just for him.
Mar sin leibh
(Picture from Mary Queen of Scots film)